Wednesday, December 14, 2011
All Work and No Play Makes a Dull Writer
by Guest Blogger Karin Gillepsie
Have you ever read the work of a young, uncorrupted writer? It’s like venturing into a jungle: Fresh. Green. Wild. Monkeys beating their furry chests. Parrots shrieking. Anacondas curling around trees. A chaos of creativity.
Such a writer is ruled almost entirely by her subconscious. The subconscious—let’s call her Crazy Daisy—doesn’t know the difference between a gerund and a dangling participle; she only cares about expressing herself. Writing is play, not work.
Unfortunately, Crazy Daisy, charming as she is, has a problem: her work meanders like a toddler strewing petals at a wedding; she needs to be reigned in.
Enter Ms. Grind.
Ms. Grind Cares About the Rules
She’ll tell Crazy Daisy that a sentence can’t run on for three pages or that exclamation points shouldn’t be showered over a page like pepper. She’s so bossy and judgmental she frightens away Crazy Daisy. Ms. Grind doesn’t care; she doesn’t needs that wild little girl hanging around anyway. Yet when she tries to have fun with her prose, it’s scary, like having Dick Cheney ask you to pull his finger. Most of her writing comes out freeze-dried and soulless.
Fact is, all writers are slightly schizophrenic, their minds divided between Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grind. We usually start out dominated by Crazy Daisy but once we immerse ourselves into the sea of endless writing rules, Ms. Grind tends to take over.
Can Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grind live harmoniously in a writer’s head? In other words, is it possible to create prose that’s technically proficient but also has passion, wonder, and playfulness? Yes, but only if you allow Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grind to play to their strengths.
New Ideas Usually Come from Crazy Daisy
You’re taking a walk or daydreaming and suddenly . . . BAM! You get a great idea. Crazy Daisy, impetuous minx, wants to start writing immediately. It’s like she has a case of diarrhea. You’ll be tempted to run with her. Don’t do it. Stop and take a moment to diaper the little imp.
Believe it or not, it’s time to bring Ms. Grind into the equation—not to shoot down the idea—but to structure it. Ms. Grinds loves outlines and plans and she’s good at them. After a little structure work, she might find that the idea isn’t workable after all. Sadly, not all of Crazy Daisy’s ideas are golden. She likes to take risks—and some don’t pay off.
In fact, it’s wise to begin every writing session with Ms. Grind and structure your thoughts when you sit down to write, whether to compose a short scene or a brief essay. You’ll satisfy Ms. Grind and give Crazy Daisy some perimeters. T.S. Elliot summarized this process:
When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its upmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.
Keep Ms. Grind Out of Your First Drafts
Once structure’s in place, it's time to let Crazy Daisy loose. Allow her to scribble on walls, turn somersaults or eat paste. Sometimes she might break down structural walls—but that’s okay too. Ms. Grind, however, isn’t allowed in. Why? Because she’ll keep up a steady stream of inner dialogue that sounds something like this:
That sentence was abysmal. It must be fixed immediately. Can’t you do anything right? Who do you think you are, passing yourself as a writer?
Occasionally Crazy Daisy interjects, bringing flashes of brilliance, but mostly it’s Ms. Grind who stands over the writer, wielding her ruler.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Grind doesn’t give up her authority easily. How can you keep her out of your head when you're drafting?
Learn How to Break the Judgment Habit
Most people aren’t aware of the stream of criticism flowing in their minds while they’re writing. Thinking is so fast and transitory, it can be hard to catch Ms. Grind’s endless digs. That why it’s helpful to develop a habit of sitting quietly and meditating for fifteen minutes each day. Ms. Grind will no doubt object, saying, “What a ridiculous idea. Do you realize we’re wasting valuable writing time sitting around doing nothing?”
She’s no dummy. Ms. Grind knows that meditation is the best way to access all of Crazy Daisy’s wild brilliance. Meditation helps you to recognize Ms. Grind’s judgmental thoughts, and to ignore them when you’re drafting a piece.
When Crazy Daisy takes over the draft, watch out, because diamonds and gold nuggets will start shooting out of your computer. BEWARE. Don’t pat yourself on the back because that, too, is a judgment, and any time you make a judgment, you’re issuing an invitation to Ms. Grind. The time for judgment, positive or negative, is in the re-write. Not now.
Writing will suddenly be fun again and as effortless as letting out a whoop of joy. You’ll find yourself falling in love all over again.
One caveat: Crazy Daisy is very messy.
When you go back to revise, you might be horrified at the results. Yes, the writing was intoxicating but the hangover’s a killer. Ms. Grind will say, “I told you so.” Don’t listen to her. Simply ask her to help you clean it up. She’ll balk at first, saying, “If you left things to me there wouldn’t so much clutter.”
True, but neither would there be so much fresh, wild writing. Give it a try and see. It can be a little disorienting. You might not even recognize your own prose. By the way, there’s an easy way to tell which personality dominates your writing. If you love the drafting phase and hate structure and rewriting, Crazy Daisy probably dominates your writing. If you like outlines, loathe the drafting phase and love to polish your prose, you need a T-shirt that says “Team Ms. Grind.”
*If you resisted reading this article, thank Ms.Grind. She’s not interested in articles about making writing fun. It threatens her authority. She much prefers list articles like “Ten Ways To Punch Up Your Dialogue.” They’re useful; this article is a waste of time. Crazy Daisy, indeed.
Karin Gillespie is the author of five novels. Her publisher’s website is http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Karin-Gillespie/20149647.